Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

21 Jun 2009

A foreboding metropolis that chews up young people, relegating their dreams to a distant memory within servitude and sacrifice. A society so strapped by tradition and “face” that the arrival of a gruff, disgusting foreign throws them into a tizzy of tabloid temptation. A people so lost in their own hermetic insularity that human connections seem alien and almost dangerous. If you listen to three of the world’s foremost film directors - Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-Ho - this is Tokyo, Japan’s unyielding urban giant. This is the way the sprawling skyscraper vista works. This is the way it bustles and ebbs. This is the way it is viewed by friend and critic alike. In the amazing anthology named for what is arguably the world’s largest city, different aspects of Tokyo life are explored and systematically deconstructed. Some may consider it a callous critical evaluation. In truth, it’s nothing short of a luxuriant love letter.

In “Interior Design”, Gondry gives us the story of Akira and Hiroko. He’s a wannabe filmmaker. She’s his assistant and his support - both on and off the set. With nowhere to live and limited funds, they impose upon school friend Akemi, herself living in one of the smallest apartments in town. As a couple of days turn into weeks, our novices learn how easily Tokyo takes you apart, reducing you to your basic, subservient self. In “Merde” (French for “shit”), Carax creates a sewer dwelling deviant who wrecks havoc among the polite population, rising from the underground to act in rude and inappropriate ways. When finally caught for his increasingly heinous crimes, he becomes a media star, and the subject of much debate amongst foreigners and fringe groups alike. Finally, Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” offers a shut-in (or in Japanese, a “hikikomori”) who hasn’t ventured out of his house in over a decade. When he finally makes contact with an eccentric pizza delivery gal, his world is literally rocked to its foundation.

As examples of interpretation, Tokyo! offers a wholly unique cinematic experience. It’s fun, and often frustrating, to see what each filmmaker is offering with their clearly personalized and oddly perturbing take on this icon of the Eastern empire. There is no attempt to explain the city, no offering of history or pragmatic context. Like a dance meant to symbolize something outside its individual steps, Gondry, Carax, and Bong have braved the wrath of nearly 35 million Japanese to give Tokyo! the artistic analytical patina it apparently needs. For many in the West, the city stands as the center of a once mighty economic behemoth, a workaholic wasteland of technological progress and entertainment oddity. But buried within the fiscal fallacies, freak game shows, and 80 hour weeks are smaller stories, pieces of a personal puzzle that makes any attempt at generalization seems petty and pointless.

And this is exactly what Tokyo! wants to focus on. For Gondry’s characters, there is no need to dream. One can’t be picky about where they want to live, nor can they claim a career outside the mainstream when said sentiments are often viewed as silly or idiotic. For Akira, an eventual part-time job as a package wrapper seems to suck all the energy out of his desire to make movies. But it’s worse for Hiroko. As the woman behind the man, as the cleaner of her careless lover’s many messes, she’s a cipher, a vacant facet of a fleeting urban reality. When she finally resolves herself to an accessory-like existence in the service of someone else (instead of exploring her own wistful wants) things become settled - and quite sad. As he often does, Gondry pushes the boundaries of both realism and fantasy to forge a truth few could easily see before.

Carax is not that subtle. He is out to attack Japan like the green-suited Godzilla his Monster from the Sewers represents. It what is clearly the most clichéd of all Tokyo! ‘s conceits, the Frenchman fidgets with the Asian ideas of etiquette, social acceptability, and public reactions to same. We see actor Danis Lavant, looking a lot like a repugnant leprechaun, rising from the streets to confront his prey - and while his initial actions are simply rude (stealing cigarettes, eating potted plants, licking a young girl’s armpit), the tone grows more and more menacing. Finally, the discovery of a box of old World War II grenades - gotta love the understated symbolism involved - allows the Monster to truly live up to his title. From then on, Carax indulges in a countryman’s comedy of the absurd, Lavant trading nonsense gobbledygook with an imported lawyer played with equal oddball verve by Jean-Francois Balmer. Their wholly private pantomime leaves the Japanese stunned - that is, until the villain reveals who he really might be. Then we get even more East meet West weirdness.

Unlike Carax’s hammer-over-the-head (and still wholly entertaining) obviousness, Bong believes in giving very little away. His segment is a lot like the main character he features - meticulous, studied, and reluctant to open himself up. As we watch the OCD like living arrangements, as we marvel at a house that’s as neat as a pin but as sterile as such a setting creates, we wait for the next emotional shoe to drop, and when Bong finally decides to deliver it, it’s devastating. The last act then becomes a kind of communal mea culpa, a way of showing how life in a city this size can create a populace only plagued by what they personally obsess on. Gone is our hero’s hikikomori psychosis. In its place is a desperation for human contact, the kind of fear that will make even the most insane individual snap out of their practiced routine. As with the other two installments, Bong is not out to illustrate some massive philosophical point. This kind of one-on-one want is how he sees the traps within Tokyo.

As with any translation over to home video, some might feel robbed of this film’s substantial scope and visual panache. There is actually no need to worry on that front as the Blu-ray release of Tokyo! looks amazing. The 1080p offering brings out all the optical detail Gondry, Carax and Bong managed to add to their efforts, and the city itself (when shown) has the kind of sizable sprawl that puts the whole enterprise into aesthetic perspective. Even better, Liberation Entertainment gives this digital package a push toward completeness by adding interviews with all three filmmakers, as well as behind the scenes glimpses of how each movie was made. By looking at these bits of added content in conjunction with the film itself, we begin to understand the motive behind each episode and realize how such seemingly obtuse approaches can lead to some potent metropolitan maxims.

In the end, our newly arrived couple appear content - or at the very least, one half seems resolved to play her part. The Monster is quelled, and lessons are learned that many couldn’t have easily anticipated when the fiend first made his merciless presence known. And while the city might fall - or simply crumble under the influence of numerous geological aftershocks - at least two people have seen the light - or more literally, stepped out of the darkness of their own self-made world long enough to realize it’s safe…sort of. In truth, these could be the stories of any urban landscape - New York, Mexico City, or San Paolo. But within the specific culture of Tokyo! , a trio of directors found the kind of inspiration that unlocks a thousand ideas. Luckily, the talent involved only needed a few to come up with something special. 

by Bill Gibron

14 Jun 2009

Dario Argento has often been referred to as the ‘Italian Hitchcock’. The filmmaker even made a latter day film based around the renowned British auteur. But with outlandishly stylized efforts like Suspiria and Inferno to his name, as well as cruel and callous crime thrillers (known as “giallos” in his native Rome), it was often hard to actually see the connection. Argento is so much more than Sir Alfred’s rightful heir, the differences between the two being easily identifiable. One used overt style to sell his standard mainstream thrillers. With a few stumbles along the way, Argento has remained one of international fright films’ most consistently inventive and unusual maestros.

Still, for many in his fanbase, there has been a missing motion picture perspective, a single film that has been squirreled away by a studio that thought it was getting visceral terror and, instead, got baffling, beautiful terror art. Paramount has sat on Four Flies on Grey Velvet for almost 40 years, never allowing it a legitimate home video release. Now, Mya Communication has rescued the title from the vaults, and it’s time for macabre mavens everywhere to rejoice. What we have here is not just a horror Holy Grail. It’s not just the missing link between Dario and Hitch. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is, without question, one of the great works of post-modern dread ever.

For struggling rock star Roberto Tobias, making music is a release—and right now, he could use an escape. After being relentlessly followed by a man in dark sunglasses, he decided to confront the stalker. An accidental death and a few photographs of same later, and Roberto is being blackmailed. Yet oddly enough, the extortionist doesn’t want money. Instead, they seem content to further torture and torment him by murdering his friends and professional associates. Turning to a hippie friend named ‘God’ and his constantly drunk companion ‘The Professor’, Roberto hopes he can catch the criminal before the police get involved. When it appears that his friends’ efforts aren’t working, our hero gets a fey private detective with a rather poor track record involved. While his wife Nina worries and his arm candy Dalia tries to comfort, Roberto is convinced that someone is trying to frame him for the killings.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is indeed a forgotten Argento masterwork, a wholly visual free-for-all that ends up surpassing almost everything he had done before, or has done since. It sits right at the start of his oeuvre, the third film in his “unofficial” animal trilogy (along with Cat O’ Nine Tails and Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and the first to fully explore the various camera tricks and visual flourishes that would come to dominate his early period efforts. There are moments of pure optical madness present—a run through a series of red theater curtains, a killing that ends with a victim’s head striking each and every step down a stairwell. But there are also aspects of narrative and murder mystery subterfuge getting a post-giallo workout. Argento would define the format forever with Profundo Rosso. Four Flies actually feels like an unusual audition for some kind of half-thriller/half Gothic fairy tale hybrid.

One thing’s for sure - the original Master of Suspense would be proud. There are literally dozens of differing elements present that would tickle old Alfie’s shock sensibilities. Our hero has a recurring dream about an Iranian beheading, the blade of the executioner moving ever closer to the victim as the vision plays out. Elsewhere, there is a visit to a coffin convention, the players moving around displays showing outrageous, avant-garde, black comedy burial paraphernalia. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Argento film without some cinematic stalwarts—the conspiring supporting cast, the secret rendezvous that turns fatal, a wheezy murderers psychotic ramblings, the oddball turn that ‘solves’ the case. The novelty here is something called retinal retention. It centers on the idea that the last thing a victim sees actually registers on the back of their eyeball. Through lasers and sophisticated scientific techniques, we get the final clue to the killer’s reveal - sort of. 

Of course, the mystery is never the meat inside any Argento movie meal, nor is the police procedural attempting to solve the crime. Wisely, Four Flies sidesteps the whole authority angle, giving Roberto a reason to avoid the fuzz. Instead, he offers more “unusual” ways to address authority. Made in 1971, during the last lilting remnants of the dying counterculture, our fiendish filmmaker really lets loose with the fringe characters. Of particular interest is a man named “God” (short for Godfrey) who seems to be the puppet master for all of Roberto’s self-sleuthing, and later on, a homosexual PI provides his less than competent case solving methods in full limped-wristed swish mode. Yet Argento is not playing bigot here. Instead, he is messing with gender types, taking on both the macho and the mincing as a means of countering the eventual ‘reality’ of the killer.

Of course, all the proposed political context is just moviemaking smoke and mirrors. The real power is in the moving picture, and there are stunning examples of same throughout Four Flies, including an ending that is absolutely haunting in its slow motion vehicular violence. This is the filmmaker in full blown experimental mode, a man so assured of his visual acumen that he is willing to toss aside all other baser elements of cinema—story logistics, character detail, tone consistency, etc.—to achieve his ends. For some, this will be nothing more than slick self-indulgence, flash for the sake of unclear aesthetic aims. But when viewed through the prism of his growing directorial confidence, in conjunction with where he hoped his career would flourish, Four Flies becomes an outrageous omen of things to come.

Why Paramount sat on this film so long will always remain a cinematic mystery. Sure, one could argue that Argento has made more accessible films, even within Suspiria‘s fever dream dynamic and latter works’ (Opera, Stendhal Syndrome) unbridled gore. But as something indicative of who he was/is, as an example of his art at its most malleable and insane, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is without exception. It’s the kind of film you ‘expect’ when you hear about the man, his mannerisms, and his methods. It’s the giallo that redefines the genre as it cements certain filmic formalities. If you go in expecting straightforward crime solving and a wealth of clues/red herrings as to the killer’s identity, you’ll be disappointed. Argento litters his scenes with all manner of diversion, but very few lead to the final denouement. Indeed, as whodunits go, this is more of a “who cares”. But as a work of celluloid skill, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has no equal. It’s a great, great film.

by Bill Gibron

13 Jun 2009

It’s one of the rare times when the fans got it wrong. The faithful, ever vigilant in their protection of their beloved macabre myths, pounced all over Marcus Nispel’s remake of Friday the 13th as if it were the anti-Antichrist of scarefests. They lamented its decision to deconstruct the entire Voorhees fright folklore, turning Jason and his equally mental mother into cogs in a killing machine set-up that saw none of the original series classicism. Of course, much of this kvetching was pure revisionist history. The Friday films were never masterworks. Indeed, they played like preplanned facets of a well-honed formula, slice and dice offered up in convenient, precise, 90 minute running time packages. But Nispel wanted to amplify the one thing the previous 10 installments lacked - pure visceral brutality. And he did so magnificently.

True to the tenets of the Voorhees family tree, Friday the 13th 2009 begins with Jason witnessing his mother’s decapitation. Fast forward a few years, and he’s a murderous recluse living near the ruins of Camp Crystal Lake. When a group of teens arrive, looking for a hidden marijuana patch, the machete wielding maniac does what he does best. Soon, a young man named Clay Miller is traveling into the area, looking for his missing sister. He runs into yet another college age collective out to have a good time and party hard. Little do they know that Jason is still around, hoping to add to his already ample body count. As he hacks his way through the unwitting young people, Clay still hopes to find his lost sibling. And our slasher, spurred by a sense of loss for his long dead mom, has a secret. It involves an underground lair…and a hostage.

While they have never been known as a director’s series, the Friday the 13th films definitely live and die (no pun intended) by who is sitting behind the lens. The first film had the solid work of Sean Cunningham behind it, and while Steve Miner showed some flash with Parts II and III, it was Joseph Zito who gave the series its potent punch with The Final Chapter. Sadly, since then, there were more misses (Danny Steinmann - Part V and Rob Hedden - Part VIII, specifically) than hits (Tom McLauglin’s excellent Jason Lives, Ronny Yu’s remarkable Freddy vs. Jason). So anyone who argues for the sanctity of this dynasty is clearly functioning on sense memory, not it’s more ‘common’ component. Besides, none of the arguments made against Rob Zombie’s equally impressive Halloween remake (messing with Michael Myers as a character, too much FBI profiler BS) are present here. Nispel knows the Friday fabric, and he weaves a wicked frightmare out of it.

This is a director who completely understands the basics of menace, dread, and terror. He sets up his locations with recognizable consistency, allowing us to put ourselves in the place of the victims. There is a familiarity and a foreignness to the situations, a way for the individual to escape their fate and an inevitability which literally chills the soul. Because of the approach, because Nispel pulls no punches and proceeds with unbridled drive, this Friday the 13th seems more “realistic” than its predecessors - and this may be another aspect of the film that old school fans didn’t like or really appreciate. The original movies were masquerading as morality tales, the sins of sex, drugs, and debauchery repaid by a vengeful spirit in a hockey mask. Here, Jason is a cold blooded killer, not some symbol of victory over vice.

And the newly released Blu-ray version of the Friday the 13th 2009 “Killer Cut” amplifies all this. In the extended sequences within Jason’s lair, we see him frantic over flashbacks to his mother’s death. As the decapitation replays, our tormented homunculus trashes his retreat, showing off the years he spent trying to compensate for the trauma he experienced. There are also longer looks at the initial murder and little Voorhees’ reaction to same. While it’s easy to see why this material was removed from the original theatrical version (as well a subplot which shows how Whitney, Clay’s sister, initially escaped from Jason’s clutches, only to be recaptured later on), this new cut illustrates how dense the Friday the 13th scenario really is - as well as how versed Nispel is in same.

Sure, during the picture-in-a-picture trivia track, the director argues that his only two suggestions were for an underground hideout and the elongated prologue (a genius move, considering the expectations viewers had about what would be different about this take on the franchise), and there is still a need to supplement the slaughter with the MPAA excised gore (the Blu-ray is R-rated, only). Yet there is an undeniable cruelty to this Jason’s actions. He is less about the gimmick and more about the mayhem than previous incarnations - with, perhaps, the exception of Final Chapter Voorhees and his Part VI “zombified” counterpart. Sure, the murders here are inventive, but there’s no flare to the mouth or gardening sheers to the eye sockets. Instead, Jason burns, vivisects, and smashes his prey with surprising sadism. Before, our hooded anti-hero was someone to cheer for. Now, he’s truly something to fear.

And that is perhaps Nispel’s gravest cardinal sin - at least to those who are reliving their Saturday Night sleepovers within the Friday the 13th “double dare” horror melancholy. By reinventing Jason into something he always was - a terrifying visage of corporeal destruction - and taking away the camp and the kitsch, the 2009 movie stays true to the basics of the slasher genre while avoiding its more ‘juvenile’ trappings. This film still sets up a random group of victims and then finishes them off, one by one. Yet anyone hoping the update would be something more akin to the more irreverent revivals of the last few years was, indeed, sadly mistaken. For them, this will be a dire trip into territory a limited genre purview can only imagine. But for true aficionados of fright, for those who have longed for Jason Voorhees to be taken seriously as a spree killer, Marcus Nispel truly delivers. Friday the 13th 2009 is indeed the ‘classic’ the other installments in the franchise claim to be.

by Bill Gibron

6 Jun 2009

Martin Scorsese has his Robert DeNiro. Tony Scott has Denzel Washington. In fact, there are a lot of directors who single out a certain actor to realize their particular vision. Even in the independent and outsider markets, filmmakers rely on specific performers to “sync up” with what they have to say and make it happen. This is certainly true of the Pasolini of the Trailer Park, Giuseppe Andrews. With his company of real life mobile home residents, the actor turned auteur has had the pleasure of working with some amazing talents - Bill Nowlin, Tyree, Walter Patterson, Walt Dongo, and little person Karen Bo Baron. But no one has been better, more consistently creative and iconic than Vietnam Ron. Scraggly bearded and mop haired, this wide-eyed acid casualty from decades gone by is Andrews ace in the a-hole, a demented center of crazed calm in the maelstrom of maladjusted fringe dwellers - and his latest starring vehicle, Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences, is a titanic tour de force.

Doily lives with his psychic wife Haley Comet. She does readings, and has sex with clients on the side. He spends his days dishing with his friends Terrace and Sabado. At the beginning of one memorable summer, Doily is chased by a bee. The insect eventually hunts down and kills his buddy Terrace, who is then brought back to life by a mysterious alien object. Next, a client of Haley finds his hair cut and shampooed - and he didn’t do it. Then a dinner party at friend Colby Jack’s turns weird when the host is transformed into a giant pot pie. In between, our hero is attacked by a monster and a household slipper, and rediscovers his love for crystal meth. But when buddy Terrace turns up again, this time as a talking VCR, Doily starts getting scared. While Haley considers all these events mere “freak occurrences”, her lover man is convinced they are signs that someone is trying to kill him.

As a showcase for Vietnam Ron and his silent movie star acumen, Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences is fantastic. It’s like a day in the life documentary except the subject here is a fragile little man being targeted by the more maniacal aspects of fate. When our lead goes gonzo while being chased by a bee, we can instantly see the appeal. Vietnam Ron, for all his aging ambiguity, it so gosh-darn likeable, so intensely loveable and entertaining that he can read the phone book for an hour and we’d believe it to be genius. There is nothing mannered or put on with this true-to-life character. What you see is (presumably) what you get. Ron often represents Andrews at his most unhinged. Unlike Tyree, who tackles the tawdry sex talk the director excels in, or Dongo who delivers his lines within a haze of permanent alcohol intake, this wiry wonder is all facial hair and freak out attitude.

All of which makes his leading role presence all the more important to Andrews’ sunny comedy. This is really nothing more than a series of sensational set-ups, situations waiting for Ron and his comely co-star Marybeth Spychalski to react to - and both definitely deliver. Andrews is also using them as the means to some evocative cinematic ends. He experiments with the lens, giving us an insect-eye view of the opening bee attack, while adding some gloriously amateur special effects to the alien/slipper sequences. While the strange occurrences seem to have no legitimate symbolism or theme, one can easily see Andrews evoking the nonsensical traumas of a typical life. It’s even Haley’s excuse for everything that’s happening. But because of Doily’s insistence that there is more to it than happenstance, we look deeper into the delirium - and therein lies the movie’s magic.

Like the protracted puzzles he often creates with his screenplays, Doily’s issues can be chalked up to emotional and environmental faults. He loves Haley so much that he tolerates her occasional affairs. She also has a deep and never-ending affection for her man, since she is also willing to forgive his equally selfish sins. He’s also a recovering meth addict - though, in reality, he’s more like a junkie who has his cravings under some manner of control. The brain baffling side effects of living in a narcotic haze could explain many of the oddball things that happen here, but Andrews doesn’t make the connections clear. Instead, he uses the drugs and the drain of relationships as the dragons Doily must slay simply to survive. In the end, when it looks like life will consume him, our hero simply recognizes his devotion to Haley, and their precious “pillow talk” leaves the movie on a memorable last (and legitimate) beat.

As with almost all his films, Andrews’ Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences is as important in its journey as its critical conclusions. The trip to Colby Jack’s home is particularly memorable, with Walt Patterson putting on his best jerk-off jackass persona. Kai Scott, as Sabado, is also a highly unique presence. Speaking in a genial, gentle tone that underlines his hefty size, he’s the esoteric voice of reason in a circumstance that has very little rationality. As usual, Sir George Bigfoot makes a memorable statement as a visiting monster, and Dongo’s discussion of his Luddite planet’s need for paper and pens is classic in its off the wall insanity. Those looking for - or used to - Andrews’ love of the scatological will be glad to know that most of Haley’s issues come from a rather burdensome period, and there is a sequence where Doily hallucinates a client’s butt singing a song about farts. But those are the rare instances of risqué content.

Indeed, Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences proves that, as a filmmaker, Giuseppe Andrews is an overflowing fount of artistic ambition and ideas. How he can go from serious dissections of human misery to goofball explorations of fate, mock Italian neo-realism to outrageous statements of psychedelic surrealism and still maintain his indie auteur cred is a lesson a few so-called outsiders could - and should - contemplate for a while. After all, here is someone who works with basically the same company of characters, uses the same backdrops and settings, explores the same elements and aspects of human nature, and yet turns in one unique gem after another. Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences is another flawless feather in the man’s already overflowing cinematic chapeau - and this time, it’s thanks to stellar star power of one Vietnam Ron. As the yokel yin to Andrews’ yang, he’s a national treasure. He’s also the reason why we come to love every minute of this memorable masterwork.

by Bill Gibron

3 Jun 2009

Change is not always for the best. On occasion, it can undermine an otherwise perfectly sound conceit. When Sid and Marty Krofft, two exceptionally successful producers of Saturday morning live action kid shows (with classics like H. R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters to their credit) wanted to branch out into a more serious action/adventure format, they hadn’t a clue what to do. All they knew was that they wanted it to deal with dinosaurs, and provide a family-oriented offering of mystery and magic. Yet after three seasons, what had started as a serious speculative thriller was turned into just another wacky Saturday morning spree. And all because the powers that be wouldn’t leave it alone.

Truth be told, Land of the Lost is not really a Krofft production in the purest sense. Sure, they masterminded the basics of the show, but they weren’t prepared to take on the challenge of creating such a structured, sci-fi universe on their own. They knew they needed serious outside help. Setting aside their own vision, which was somewhat lacking, they wisely turned to David Gerrold, member of the illustrious Star Trek writing staff and guiding force behind the animated version of the series, to develop their idea. More or less giving him free reign to conceive and create the show, is was Gerrold who fathered what would eventually be one the longest running and best remembered series to carry the Krofft name.

It was Gerrold who devised the basic premise: a park ranger named Rick Marshall (played by stage actor Spencer Milligan) and his two teenage children, Will (soap star Wesley Eure) and Holly (newcomer Kathy Coleman), are whitewater rafting when a freak earthquake sends them cascading over a mysterious waterfall. They soon find themselves in an unusual land filled with dangerous dinosaurs, chattering ape people, and evil lizard men. It was Gerrold who dubbed the monkey men “the Pakuni” and the repugnant reptiles “Sleestak”. Relying on many of his Trek buddies to pen scripts — including D.C. Fontana (“Elsewhen”), Ben Bova (“The Search”), Walter Koenig (“The Stranger”), and Larry Niven (“Hurricane,” “Circle”) — he hoped to do something unheard of in Saturday Morning TV; he wanted to make smart fantasy for the pre and tween set.

And believe it or not, he did. Season One of Land of the Lost is a true minor gem in the sci-fi genre, a show that took itself, and its premise, very seriously. Carefully balancing elements both solemn and slapstick, the series wanted to engage the juvenile while it explored a more mature message and mannerism. Using the bonds of family as its primary foundation, the first few episodes offered exploration as an excuse to focus on cultural differences (human vs. pakuni), human foibles (as expressed by an intelligent and empathetic Sleestak character, Enik) and the standard stranger in a strange land dynamic. While the F/X were as close to cutting edge as a ‘70s television budget could make them (meaning lots of now-laughable stop motion silliness), there was still a sense of fear and trepidation in the show. We wondered if the Marshall’s would ever return home, and wondered how dangerous it would be for them to try.

Unfortunately, said potential was never really fulfilled. After Season One, Gerrold stepped down, and the untried Dick Morgan was brought in to guide the show. Right from the beginning, the changes were obvious: less overriding, serialized story arcs and more episodic installments with all dilemmas wrapped up neat and tidy in 25 minutes; greater emphasis on the ‘cute’ and ‘commercial’ Pakuni; more baby dinosaurs (Holly had a “pet” named Dopey that was a breakout character in the first series). In essence, they wanted to copy the obvious successes from the kiddie shows past. That is why we now had a new “intellectualized” evil character in the light-based bad guy, the Zarn. That is why we got Cha-ka (Philip Paley) and his parents (the only Pakuni on the planet) appearing in virtually every episode. It is also why Season Two feels like a retread, not an expansion, of Land of the Lost‘s possibilities.

This doesn’t mean the Second Season was a complete disaster (the disaster would come later). No, inside the prehistoric animal antics and claymation critters are some stellar installments. When Cha-Ka has to prove his maturing “ape-hood” by stealing an Allusaurus egg, said stunt provides “The Test” with its surefire suspense. The Zarn is responsible for a threatening shift in the planet’s particulars, creating a “Gravity Storm” and one of the show’s most inventive storylines. The Sleestak trap Rick, blaming him for the neverending sunlight of “The Longest Day”, while an accidental step inside one of the planet’s mysterious gold monoliths results in a time travel trip on “The Pylon Express”. Indeed, when viewed more closely, Season Two shines more than it shames. Though the lack of a linking plotline was problematic (the “heading for home” conceit getting lost in the shuffle), many of the shows found a way to stand out and surprise.

It was Season Three where things began to go downhill. Age was taking its toll on the performers, with stars Wesley Eure and Kathy Coleman looking more mature and less childlike. For undisclosed reasons, Spencer Milligan decided to quit. Needing to replace Rick Marshall with another father figure type, new script editor Samuel Roeca (an old Hollywood stalwart — having worked on everything from The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok to Mission: Impossible) — conceived of “Uncle” Jack. He was Rick’s brother who himself got “lost” while out searching for the missing family. In one of the more convoluted conventions in the show, Jack managed to tumble through the same time hole as the family, following them directly to the exact moment when Rick “disappeared” during an earthquake. To make matters worst, Cha-Ka also lost his kinfolk during the seismic shift. Thus, this newly formed family had to regroup and find a new home to replace their now-destroyed cave enclosure.

Naturally, they ended up in part of the Lost City, near the sinister Sleestak’s temple. This allowed for a constant threat, as well as more interaction with the popular villains. The series began relying on guest stars, strange beasts, and other anomalies to keep the fantasy alive and fresh. Season Three would see Richard Kiel play a Godlike creature worshipped by the lizard men (“Survival Kit”); the random arrival of other humans, including a cavalry officer and the Indian brave he was chasing (“Medicine Man”); a hot air balloonist (“Hot Air Artist”); and a few new dino foes. Yet that wasn’t apparently good enough for the creative brass, as unicorns, dragons, and other odd beasties were brought into the mix. Chaka became less chimp-like and more an unwashed human brat, and Uncle Jack was less fatherly and more flummoxed by everything around him. There were highlights: a particularly scary outing involving the loss of the sun (“The Repairman”), and another return from everyone’s favorite cultured reptile, Enik.

But what this season showed more clearly was that Land of the Lost was resorting to gimmicks to get by. Good writing and proper production values were no longer important. When Gerrold was at the helm, he wanted the series to resonate with every age group. But by the time Roeca took over, the show was quite prepared to talk down to, and even a little bit below, its audience. It was no longer adventurous and fun — it was awkward and forced. Maybe Mulligan’s leaving was the key, or perhaps the desire to dress up every episode with as much sci-fi froufrou as possible or probable was to blame. Whatever the case, what once was a timeless classic worthy of the genre moniker was now just another Krofft experiment in speculative silliness. Its cancellation wasn’t unexpected. For some, it was merciful. Fans just couldn’t fathom another reconfiguration of what was once their weekend repast into an ethereal land of possibilities and pitfalls.

What stands out today, some 30 years later, is how good those first few shows were. Unlike Lost in Space, or other Swiss Family Crusoe’s concepts of individuals stranded in the cosmos, there was a real feeling of dread and danger, as well as a large dose of familial love. Gerrold understood that sci-fi was more than just weird looking places and strange monsters. It was about story, and characters, and audience identification. As the seasons passed, Land of the Lost got locked into its own little world, isolating itself from that which once made it great. Such insularity cost the show its creativity, and then its support. Had it simply stayed the course set out before, it could have continued on as a solid, seminal show. But every year, someone had to change something. And in the case of Land of the Lost, change was only took the show ever farther away from where it wanted to be.

//Mixed media

Marina and the Diamonds Wrap Up U.S. Tour at Terminal 5 (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Marina's star shines bright and her iridescent pop shines brighter. Froot is her most solid album yet. Her tour continues into the new year throughout Europe.

READ the article